Things to Do in Abu Dhabi
Not to be outdone by Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi opened its own seven-star hotel in 2005. The Emirates Palace, managed by the Kempinski Group, sits just outside the city on its own private stretch of white sand beach. The domed, sand-colored palace is dotted with verdant gardens, water fountains and sparkling pools.
The 302 rooms and 92 suites—many finished in gold and marble—feature state-of-the-art entertainment systems paired with Arabian furnishings fit for a sheik. Here’s an idea of just how extravagant the 3 billion dollar property really is: 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of pure edible gold gets incorporated into the hotel’s desserts each year—desserts made in 128 kitchens. The marble in the hotel comes from 13 different countries and 1,002 chandeliers provide the light. Visitors who don’t want to splurge on a room can experience the property with a meal at one of 10 restaurants, a drink at one of the four bars or a rejuvenating treatment at the Anantara Spa.
The Abu Dhabi Corniche stretches along the northwestern shore of the island city, a popular spot for beachside recreation. The 5-mile (8-kilometer) stretch of attractive waterfront includes walking paths, cafes, playgrounds and bicycle rentals, and no matter what you decide to do along the coast, you’ll have an excellent view of Abu Dhabi’s skyline. In the evenings, the promenade is the perfect place for a stroll.
The Corniche’s crowning jewel is its public white sand beach. With numerous lifeguards on duty during swimming hours and floating fences keeping swimmers within 130 feet (40 meters), the Corniche Beach is great for families traveling with children. Come on a weekday, and you’ll usually find an umbrella.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the United Arab Emirates and eighth largest in the world, rises majestically from Abu Dhabi and serves as the central place of worship for citizens of the emirate. The massive white structure can accommodate around 40,000 people and is home to the world’s largest marble mosaic in the courtyard and the world’s largest carpet which is within the main prayer hall.
Thousands of workers from three dozen design companies worked to make the mosque a reality, resulting in the most expensive mosque on earth. White marble was imported from 28 different countries to complete the mosque, as well as chandeliers from Europe—the world’s most valuable—and carpets from Iran.
The mosque offers free admission. Visitors should wear loose-fitting clothing, including a long skirt or pants and long-sleeved shirts. Women must wear a head scarf within the mosque, so please bring your own as they are not provided at the mosque.
It’s only fitting that a city as extravagant as Abu Dhabi has a theme park to match its extravagance, and in this case, that theme park is Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. The race car-themed park features 20 rides and attractions—everything from the toddler-friendly carousel of Ferrari prototype cars to cutting-edge racing simulators that will please older children and teens.
The largest indoor theme park in the world is also home to the world’s fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, a hydraulic-powered thrill ride where you’re strapped into a Ferrari Formula One-like coaster car and launched at speeds up to 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour).
Car enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the 1920s ode to Italian racing inside the Cinema Maranello or the Racing Legends, an exhibit featuring key moments in the history of Ferrari racing. Expect to dine on primarily Italian food if you choose to eat in the food court.
Located on the Corniche Breakwater, the Emirates Heritage Club runs a reconstructed traditional village demonstrating the lifestyles and traditions of the cultures native to the Arabian Peninsula. If you’ve ever wondered what Abu Dhabi was like before the discovery of oil transformed it into a pocket of extreme wealth, you’ll get a glimpse here. Come in the morning before it gets too hot to explore the open-air museum. Enter a traditional goats’ hair tent and learn about the ancient falaj irrigation system that allowed desert dwellers to begin cultivating crops. Local craftsworkers conduct workshops in traditional metalwork, pottery, spinning and weaving. The traditional mosque is a far cry from the palatial white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, demonstrating just how far the United Arab Emirates have come. Be sure to stop by the gift shop during your visit. You’ll be able to pick up local herbs and spices as well as items made by the local artisans working in the village.
Opened in 2001, Marina Mall is Abu Dhabi’s biggest and best shopping complex, encompassing 1.3 million square feet (122,000 square meters) of retail space. A major destination for fans of luxe shopping, the complex houses more than 400 shops and 48 restaurants. Standouts include an IKEA, Carrefour supermarket and a Manchester City FC store.
For non-shopping travelers, the mall houses an ice rink, nine screen VOX Cinemas, a 32-lane bowling alley, Fun City arcade and family entertainment center, musical fountains and a viewing platform for people watching.
With 45 rides and slides Yas Waterworld is the ideal destination for thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies, active families and daredevil day-trippers. Adventurous visitors can navigate the high-speed Bubble Barrel atop of an aquatic skateboard, spiral down the terrifying Dawwama, or soar along the notorious Rush Rider. Yas’ jaw-dropping waterslides, like the Liwa Loop, Jebel Drop and Hamlool’s Humps tempt travelers with speeds that are found only at one of the world’s wildest adventure parks.
Newbies will also find plenty of fun at Yas Waterworld, where Falcon’s Falaj, Sebagand, and a handful of floating rivers provide a training ground for some of the park’s big attractions. Even the little ones can enjoy splish slashing in the Marah Fortress or cruising down the slopes of Yas’ tiny Yehal. Whether it’s high-speed adventure or laid back family fun, Yas Waterworld has the wet and wild set completely covered.
More Things to Do in Abu Dhabi
The residential, commercial and leisure area known as Saadiyat Island sits just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. While the project is still under development and set to be completed in 2020, visitors can get a glimpse of what the island will eventually be like by visiting the Manarat Al Saadiyat, a visitor center with an exhibit on the Saadiyat Island development, as well as space for several temporary exhibitions.
The UAE Pavilion from the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai has been relocated to the island as well, now serving as a major events venue for the city. Visitors can also play a round of golf at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, designed by Gary Player, or enjoy the beach at the two resorts already opened for business. Over the next several years, architects from around the globe including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, will be working on Abu Dhabi installations of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, as well as a performing arts center, maritime museum, marina and promenade.
Usually, it’s bad news when your vacation includes a trip to the hospital, but that’s not always the case in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is one of the city’s more bizarre yet fascinating attractions. The world’s first and largest hospital dedicated to the predatory bird opened in 1999 under the direction of a prominent German veterinary surgeon.
About 6,000 birds pass through each year, occupying the 200 air-conditioned treatment rooms. This might seem strange until you understand that the sport of falconry has deep roots in the city. The sport is so popular that falcons are even issued passports and the prized animals can cost tens of thousands of dollars. If a falcon loses even one strand of feather, they can experience balance issues in flight so their owners bring them to the hospital for checkups, treatments and feather substitutions regularly.
The Emirates National Auto Museum is home to the private collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan and exhibits more than 200 unique and classic vehicles.
Set within a pyramid-shaped building, there’s a workshop located around the back of the main museum. All of the exhibits are in excellent condition, and car lovers will rejoice at this fascinating collection, which features everything from 4x4 vehicles and racing cars to classic American motors. It’s also home to a steam-powered Mercedes from 1885, along with what is considered to be the world's largest truck.
In 1983 the Sheikh bought seven Mercedes, one for each day of the week, which he had painted the colors of the rainbow. All seven are on display in the museum and each is kitted out with such conveniences as TVs and refrigerators.
Abu Dhabi’s Central Market is a contemporary, air-conditioned take on the traditional souk style markets. Located on one of the oldest sites in the city, the market is something of a paradoxical shopping mall, combining luxury shops and boutiques with food markets and local craft-based outlets. The old souk that once stood here was destroyed in a fire, and developers have rebuilt a chic shopping and leisure mall with an authentic twist.
Both the shopping experience and the architecture of the Central Market are certainly unique. The interior is influenced by the region, with wooden lattices allowing sunlight to bounce off fountains and seep into squares and courtyards amid hints of greenery. There is a good mix of restaurants, cafes, and shops to explore, with plenty of local goods and souvenirs to be found amid the many outlets.
Located southeast of Abu Dhabi in the middle of the sprawling desert, Masdar City appears like a mirage. Ground broke on the city in 2008 with the aim of creating the world’s most sustainable eco-city. During the hot summer months, temperatures on the streets of Masdar City run as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celcius) cooler than in downtown Abu Dhabi, thanks to a giant wind tower channeling a refreshing breeze through the city’s streets.
Rooftop solar panels — making up one of the largest systems in the Middle East — harness the powerful sun rays to create clean energy to power the city. While only a few thousand people live and work there now, the project is expected to eventually house 40,000 people, with another 50,000 who commute in to work and study.
Just outside the city of Al Ain, straddling the border of the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Jebel Hafeet rises 4,068 feet (1,240 meters) above the desert landscape. It’s the highest peak in the emirate and the second highest in the country, making it one of Abu Dhabi’s most popular natural attractions.
The views, once you reach the top of the sandstone mountain, are well worth the journey. You’ll have unobstructed views of Al Ain below and Oman in the distance. The caves winding through the mountain have yielded abundant fossil discoveries and the foothills have served as a burial ground dating back more than 5,000 years—some of which you can still see.
The Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, known as one of the most scenic roads in the world, is also a popular training site for road cyclists working on their ascents. The Green Mubazzarah park at the base of the mountain houses a complex of natural hot spring pools for both men and women where you can relax.
In the heart of Al Ain, a garden-filled city located 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Abu Dhabi, you’ll find the Al Ain Oasis. The largest green space in the emirate of Abu Dhabi offers a welcome respite from the clamor and heat of the country’s fourth largest city. Locals and visitors alike come here to wander the shady, palm-lined paths past the water channels of the ancient irrigation system that once brought water to local farmers.
As you explore the 3,000-acre (1,200-hectare) space, you’ll be shaded by more than 100 varieties of date palms--nearly 150,000 of them. Rent a bike or throw on some walking shoes and give yourself a few hours to enjoy the winding brick-paved trails.
Towering skyscrapers, modern high rises and brilliant flashing lights greet travelers who dock at this urban port. Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the emirates, is ripe with ornate royal palaces, high-end shopping and even a Ferrari World theme park, but travelers looking to experience old-world wonder can get it by going beyond city limits.
These streets aren’t made for walking and public buses, though readily available and inexpensive, can be somewhat uncomfortable. Visitors can hire taxis for cheap, including pink cars that signal to tourists they are for females only. It’s also possible to rent a car in the cruise terminal. Signs in English and Arabic make roads easy to navigate, although parking can be a headache.
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